Migrants and Settlers: Miners, Packers and Vaqueros
and Migrant Workers
Traditions and Community Formation
Mexicans have lived in the Pacific Northwest since the 1850s.
They continued to come to the region for mining and ranching
opportunities through the latter half of the nineteenth century. In
the first two decades of the twentieth century, political and
economic conditions in Mexico that resulted from revolution and the
repressive policies of President Porfirio Diaz pushed many out of
Mexico to go north. Agricultural and railroad expansion and labor
shortages in the United States also pulled thousands of Mexicans
from their homeland to the Southwest and to other regions of the
Mexican American communities in the Columbia River Basin began to
grow dramatically beginning in the early 1940s. World War II
agricultural labor shortages drew more Mexican Americans and Mexican
immigrants to the region. By the1960s small enclaves of families who
decided to “settle out” of the migrant stream dotted rural
communities in southwestern Idaho, the Treasure Valley in Oregon and
Idaho, Willamette Valley in Oregon, and the Yakima Valley in
Washington. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, a
new migration wave from Mexico brought thousands more to the region
who joined their predecessors and helped create vibrant communities.
Today Mexican Americans populate urban areas as well, as significant
numbers have chosen to settle in Portland, Spokane, and Boise, and
are counted among the 623,000 people of Mexican origin enumerated by
the Census of 2000 in the states of Idaho, Oregon, and
Early Migrants and Settlers: Miners, Packers and
Some of the earliest Mexican migrants in the Columbia River Basin
were mule packers, miners, and vaqueros (cowboys). Mexican mule
packers were the descendants of generations of Spanish-Mexicans who
learned their trade in Mexico, the Southwest, and California and
moved supplies of all types from distribution points in northern
California to areas as far north as the Illinois Valley in Oregon.
In the mid-1850s, Mexican packers also supplied the Second Regiment
Oregon Mounted Volunteers during the Rogue River War in Oregon, and
in the 1870s brought supplies to the mining camps in Idaho. Mexican
miners worked the placers in the hills near Idaho City, and in the
late 1870s Manuel Fontez discovered rich quartz veins in the Salmon
River Mountains between the middle and south forks.
their mule-packer cultural siblings, Mexican vaqueros learned their
trade centuries before in the ranchos of Spanish and Mexican
California and Texas. They developed their skills in horsemanship
and in the various tasks required to tend cattle herds. They brought
their talents to Idaho and Oregon in the early 1870s and trained
young Anglos aspiring to become cowboys. In 1872 rancher John Devine
hired Mexican vaqueros to trail his herd to Oregon from California.
Several of these men who worked with Devine until the turn of the
century became some of the earliest Mexican American settlers in the
Pacific Northwest. Vaqueros from Texas and from California also
distinguished themselves in Idaho as they did in Oregon. Felipe
Carruso and his California vaqueros managed thousands of cattle for
Dan Murphy in Owyhee County. Joseph Amera acquired land and stock of
his own and raised thousands of cattle near White Bird, and
Guadalupe Valdez worked cattle in south central Idaho.
Railroad and Migrant
The story of Mexican Americans in the Pacific Northwest in the
twentieth century is closely related to the development of the
railroads and irrigated agriculture. Revolution and the resulting
chaotic economic conditions in Mexico caused hundreds of thousands
of Mexicans to enter the United States in the years from 1917 to the
outbreak of the Great Depression in1929. The expansion of sugar beet
production in Idaho “pulled” Mexican migrants to the Columbia River
Basin. As demand for labor increased, recruiters for the railroad
companies and agriculture fanned out to the southwestern states and
border cities in northern Mexico and enlisted many Mexicans eager to
find work and a better life in the United States.
Some migrants hired out with the railroad companies in the
Southwest and Midwest working in “el traque” (railroad section
gangs) and ended up in Idaho. Rita Perez’s parents came to Idaho
Falls in 1925. In an oral history interview
Perez recalls that her father worked for the railroad and “traveled
a lot” before deciding to settle in Idaho Falls. Other Mexicans came
to Oregon to work with the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company,
the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Oregon Short Line in the years
before World War I.
Thousands of migrant workers from Mexico and the
Southwest also came to the Columbia River Basin in response to
aggressive recruitment of sugar companies and farmers. Others made
it to Idaho, Oregon, and Washington on their own as word of work
opportunities traveled through kinship networks. Juanita Huerta’s
parents migrated from the Mexican state of Zacatecas to Shelby,
Idaho in 1918, where she was born the same year. Thomas
parents crossed the border at El Paso and boarded a
train of the Utah and Idaho Sugar Company to Blackfoot, Idaho, to
work in the beet fields. Sally De La Garza’s parents first migrated
to Montana in the early 1900s, where her father worked for a sugar
company and as a laborer for the railroad. Her family moved to Idaho
in 1932 and settled near Idaho Falls to work on farms. The Great
Depression dramatically slowed Mexican migration to the region but
did not stop it completely.
||Agricultural production expanded with the
advent of World War II, and the demand for labor increased again.
Recruiters sought Mexicans and Mexican Americans in northern Mexico
and the Southwest, who responded by the thousands and came to toil
in the fields and orchards of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. This
time the federal
government also joined the effort by entering into an agreement
with Mexico to import Mexican contract workers, who became known as
braceros, to harvest the crops in the Pacific Northwest and other
regions of the country.
Mexican Americans continued to migrate to the region. For example,
Rodriguez came with his family to Aberdeen, Idaho in 1941 from
their home in Karnes City, Texas. They settled in Nampa in 1954.
Not all Mexicans or Mexican Americans migrated
directly to the Columbia River Basin. Victoria Sierra’s family, who
settled in Pocatello, Idaho in 1942, first moved to Grand Junction
from their home in La Junta, Colorado. The family then moved to
Nyssa, Oregon before settling in Pocatello. Abel Vasquez’s family
first moved to Salt Lake City before migrating to Preston, Idaho.
|In the post-World
War II years, agricultural work opportunities continued to
attract Mexicans and Mexican Americans to Oregon, Idaho, and
Washington. In Oregon Mexicans and Mexican Americans from California
and Texas worked the crops in the Rogue River, the Willamette, Hood
River, and the Treasure Valleys. In central Washington Mexicans and
Mexican Americans concentrated in the Yakima Valley but also worked
in the Wenatchee Valley and the Pasco and Walla Walla areas. In
western Washington they worked as far north as the Mt. Vernon area
in the Skagit Valley. Mexicans
and Mexican Americans worked in the south central and
southwestern parts of Idaho, including the Treasure Valley.
Depending on the location these itinerant workers thinned sugar
beets, topped onions, harvested hops and green beans, and picked
potatoes, apples, asparagus and cherries. As early as the mid-1940s
many Mexican American migrant workers began "settling out" of the
migrant stream to seek year-round employment and to establish
permanent roots in the areas where they worked. As new food
processing plants provided jobs and as more of their children
received an education, Mexican Americans were able to establish
Cultural Traditions and Community
Today the Latino communities in the Columbia River Basin are a
legacy of agricultural expansion and of the cultural and religious
traditions of Mexican Americans. The Mexican settlers of the 1920s
and 1930s were few in number and lived in considerable isolation
from their ethnic counterparts in the Southwest. However, as their
numbers increased in the 1940s and 1950s their cultural and
religious celebrations fostered ethnic solidarity.
|Mexican Americans in Idaho staged Mexican
fiestas in the labor camps of Wilder, Nampa, and Caldwell in the
1940s and the 1950s. In 1957 in Quincy, Washington, Mexican
Americans began celebrating the Mexican fiesta. In Woodburn, Oregon,
Mexican Americans organized the first Fiesta Mexicana in August
1964, with support from the local businesses. Fiesta Mexicana has
been held annually since then and is the longest running Mexican
American celebration in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
With the advent of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
and early 1970s, Mexican Americans in the Columbia River Basin
placed new value on the need to “go back” to their cultural roots as
people of Mexican origin. “Escuelitas” (little schools), community
cultural centers, artists, and dance and theater groups sprouted to
give direction to the cultural renaissance. “La Escuelita” was
founded in Granger, Washington in 1969, and the same year in
Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Centro Chicano Cultural was organized
near Woodburn. In 1972 in Caldwell, Idaho, Mexican American families
organized FAMA (Familias Mexico Americanas) to promote the
preservation of Mexican American culture. These groups stressed the
need to preserve the Spanish language, to study Mexican history, and
to present Mexican and Mexican American cultural traditions. In
turn, theater groups such as El Teatro del Piojo (theater of lice)
sought to promote awareness of social issues affecting Mexican
Americans in the Pacific Northwest.
Religion-based celebrations and customs also fostered ethnic
solidarity and the continuity of Mexican culture among Mexican
American communities in the Pacific Northwest. Compadrazgo
(co-parenthood), which centered on baptism of Mexican and Mexican
American children, bonded families together. For Mexican American
girls an important event was the Quinceañera, an event that
signifies the passage of a girl to womanhood and is celebrated when
Mexican American girls reach their fifteenth birthday. Other common
religion-based celebrations are Las Posadas and the anniversary of
the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Indian Juan Diego.
Las Posadas represent the re-creation of Mary and Joseph’s search
for lodging. Like the Mexican fiestas, these religion-based
celebrations have fostered cultural continuity and reinforced
Mexican American identity in the Columbia River Basin.
Volunteer, cultural, and political associations also played a
very important role in the formation of Mexican American communities
in the Columbia River Basin. In 1955, Nampa World War II veteran
Tony Rodriguez founded a local chapter of the American G. I. Forum,
an advocacy organization for Mexican American veterans. In Nyssa,
Oregon, Christina De La Cruz Vendrell helped establish Siempre
Adelante (Always Forward), an organization that emerged in 1954 as a
Mexican American community effort to seek justice in the hit- and-
run death of a young Mexican American killed by a drunk Anglo
driver. In 1967 the Mexican American Federation was organized in
Yakima, Washington, to advocate for community development and
political empowerment for Mexican Americans in the Yakima Valley. La
Sociedad Mutualista, founded in Granger, Washington in 1968, focused
on self-help for its members and sponsorship of social and cultural
events. In 1968 Woodburn residents created the Latin American Club
to promote preservation of Mexican American culture and awareness of
||Since the 1970s, the most visible organizations for
Mexican Americans in the region have been advocates for farm
workers. The United
Farm Workers Union, based in Sunnyside, Washington in the Yakima
Valley, has tried to organize and represent farm workers. PCUN
(Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste), based in Woodburn, is
the labor union advocate for Latino farm workers in Oregon. In
Idaho, a labor union for Latino farm workers has not emerged.
However, the Idaho Migrant Council, a non-profit organization, has
advocated for Mexican American farm workers since the early 1970s.
|Until the 1960s, most Mexicans and Mexican Americans
in the Columbia River Basin were migrant farm workers. The
transition to permanent residency and the civil rights movement
changed this status for many, and more Mexican Americans have
received a college education and have joined the ranks of
professionals as educators, bankers, insurance and real estate
agents, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and engineers. The vitality
of Mexican American communities can also be seen in the explosion of
numerous businesses such as taquerias (fast food eateries), restaurants,
bakeries and tortillerías (tortilla factories), and tienditas (small
grocery stores that stock Mexican and other Latino ethnic foods)
that dot the region’s landscape. Mexican American entrepreneurial
achievement is also represented in the abundance of businesses in
lawn care and landscape services and auto repair shops throughout
the region. Perhaps a more powerful indicator of the social and
economic impact of the Mexican American presence in the Pacific
Northwest is the proliferation of numerous Spanish-language
newspapers, radio stations, and television programs that cater to
Spanish-speaking audiences throughout the region.
Today, Mexican American communities in the Columbia
River Basin are still in process of formation as new immigrants
continue to come to the region. Since 1970 record numbers of
Mexicans have entered the United States, and many of these have
entered without legal documentation. They have joined Mexican
Americans in established communities such as Sunnyside in
Washington’s Yakima Valley, Woodburn in the Willamette Valley of
Oregon, and Caldwell in western Idaho, and constitute the majority
in some small rural communities such as Wapato, Washington. They are
also settling in urban and remote, isolated areas previously
unpopulated by Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Prior to 1970, a small
population, low levels of education, and discrimination kept Mexican
Americans from any meaningful political participation in the
communities where they resided. Mexican Americans and Mexicans will
continue to shape politics and culture in the Columbia River Basin
as more of them become U.S. citizens and more second-generation
descendants obtain an education, vote, develop businesses, and
contribute to the cultural life of the region.
- Mario Compean
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